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Dr. Pitchfork: Or How I Learned to Stop Losing and Love Voter Extortion

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If you caught the title's Dr. Strangelove movie reference, kudos!--or perhaps, condolences on your aging "mortal coil." But whatever their age, fans of that classic dark comedy know it concerned learning to stop worrying and love the bomb--as in A- or H-bomb. Arguing from an original, extended analogy with economics, I here conclude that the best cure for our rigged political market is the "nuclear bomb" of political extortion by a sizable, motivated voter minority. Whose aim is to improve policy "supply"--hence the new moniker "supply-side politics."

Written to spark strategy discussion among Pitchforks Against Plutocracy's growing member base, this article should deeply interest anyone pursuing the overhaul of our rigged political system.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
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Learning from Econ 101: Duopoly as a Rigged Market

These days, one hears the term duopoly used almost exclusively in politics, usually for disparaging our badly dysfunctional two-party system. What users of duopoly may not realize is that the term originated in economics, a fact reflected by its root words: the Latin word for "two" and the Greek verb for "sell." In economics, a duopoly is a market with only two sellers. And the term's negative political vibe is likewise a holdover from economics, where a duopoly market is typically considered a far-from-ideal one. A duopoly market structure, in economics as in politics, robs consumers of desirable choice and chances for maximal well-being.

Now, as most college students learn in Economics 101, duopoly is not the way markets are supposed to function. In classical economic theory, the mechanism of price and the opportunity for competing producers to enter the market are supposed to achieve a socially beneficial harmony between supply and demand. Briefly stated, if consumers have unmet needs (demand), producers have strong profit-making incentives to enter the market and meet those demands (supply). In a dysfunctional, insufficiently competitive market, like monopoly or duopoly, existing producers have market power-- advantages that block new competitors from entering the market and letting competition work its beneficial social magic. Since producer market power robs consumers of alternatives, monopolist or duopolist producers are able to sell those consumers shoddy goods at jacked-up prices.

If we think of U.S. politics as a market, where parties (and their member politicians) are producers, eligible voters consumers, and political policies the products for sale, we can gain deeply useful insight into the harm duopoly does our society. For we can clearly see that the two duopoly producers, Democrats and Republicans, have market power that blocks competitors from entering their political markets, allowing them, with each succeeding election and term, to peddle us ever-shoddier policy goods. A deeper analysis of our badly dysfunctional, rigged political market, framed in the economics terms of supply and demand, will help us clearly grasp our present political plight and strategize realistically to restore production of quality policies that meet our political "consumer" needs.

Bad as a Market Gets: Producers Don't Supply; Consumers Don't Demand

In many ways, politics can be analyzed as a market. And like an economics market, a political one must meet certain narrow conditions to pay off for the consuming public. For example, there must be political competition, with voters having a variety of alternatives if some parties or candidates aren't meeting their demands. Most importantly, the political "producers" must offer all or most of the products voting "consumers" demand. And what's more, the alternative political "producers" must be known to most voters, and available on ballots without extraordinary, time-wasting efforts on voters' part. Pretty clearly, our wildly dysfunctional political market is meeting none of these conditions--worst of all, the condition that it supply the political "products" voter "consumers" demand. Which makes it hardly surprising record and increasing numbers of political consumers "stay home" from that market--by not voting at all.

But doesn't my point about demand contradict my section heading? In other words, how can this essay maintain that our chief political producers--our two major parties--are failing to offer what voter "consumers" demand, while claiming (in the section title) that those consumers (our "silent majority") don't demand at all? An excellent question, but an easy one to answer if, sticking to our economics analogy, we focus attention on a dysfunctional "political market."

See, just as producers in an economic monopoly or duopoly may refuse to offer products consumers deeply want, so political "producers" (parties) in a political duopoly may refuse to offer "products" (policies) political "consumers" (eligible voters) desire just as deeply. So what we get is a contrast between actual demand (what voters prefer among the policies actually offered) and latent demand (the policies voters would prefer if actually offered a choice). Time after time, we see that when polled on their real preferences, eligible voters prefer policies--a much higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich, government jobs creation, campaign finance reform--our duopoly parties simply refuse to offer. Latent demand for these policies remains consistently strong.

Actual vs. Latent Demand: Why Reform's Not on the Menu

So, in claiming the political silent majority won't demand--and in finding this symptomatic of a crazily dysfunctional "political market"--what this essay really means is that the majority of eligible voters simply won't make a stink about a political system that fails to even offer policies they deeply crave. To be sure, we can better describe the morass of our "political market" by adding a subtlety: parties will sometimes "offer" policies attuned to voters' real, latent demand; they just won't do so sincerely. While the broken promise has always been a political staple, it's arguably characteristic of our dysfunctional political system. And, in these strange times, even the idea of political insincerity must be treated with greater subtlety. See, it's not as if most politicians like breaking political promises to voters (though some seem to); and in any case, they're generally aware of the imprudence in making promises they likely can't keep. But just as in economic markets, it's a question of incentives-- and in our dysfunctional duopoly market, corrupted by Big Money, there's a perverse incentive to offend a majority of voters rather than a small minority of donors.

Here again, applying the economics model of markets to politics proves extremely useful. In our dysfunctional duopoly political market, those who ultimately control production decisions--in this case, very hands-on stockholders (plutocrat donors)--hold far greater powers of rewarding and punishing company managers (politicians) than the consuming public (eligible voters). Now perhaps the politician company managers, attuned by the very nature of their occupation to pleasing consumers, would sincerely like to give the voting majority what it really desires. And perhaps they even "sincerely" promise the desired policies. But where the real insincerity comes in--the reason for putting "sincerely" in scare quotes--is that politician "managers" temporarily, conveniently forget the micromanaging "stockholder" donors whose puppet strings they dance on. And, provided the promises don't create actual demand for public-spirited policies, the "stockholder" donors don't mind their being made at all; they'll allow anything that helps keep their managerial puppets on the job, making them extravagant profits. As far as feasible, keep the profits coming and let the public be damned.

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Patrick Walker is co-founder of Revolt Against Plutocracy (RAP) and the Bernie or Bust movement it spawned. Before that, he cut his activist teeth with the anti-fracking and Occupy Scranton PA movements. No longer with RAP, he wields his pen (more...)

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